Dr. Mitchell Cohn, DO: Speaker, Author, Recognized Leader in the Advancement & Training of Pain Diagnostics and Treatment
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Touch Is The Power To Trust

I was in the hospital for 2 days with a severe tonsillitis. The infection had taken over my body, causing raging fevers and massive chills called ‘rigors’ – chills so severe that I couldn’t dial a phone.

Eventually, the doctors got the infection and symptoms under control so I was able to rest. I sat in my hospital bed hooked up to my humming IV pump and worked on my computer, when I wasn’t sleeping. All day and every few hours all night, nurses and PCAs (patient care associates – techs who help the nurses with getting vital signs or fetching water or urinals or such) would enter the room. To be honest, they were all very nice and I had no complaints. I just had a vague feeling of unease and wanted to leave.

And then the last nurse I would have came in. She was, compared to the other nurses, practically ancient. She introduced herself and told me she’d been a nurse at the hospital for 40 years. But that was not impressive.

This was impressive:

She never entered the room without coming over to me and touching my arm where the IV needle was. She was making certain that no fluid had leaked out around the needle and that the area was not inflamed – which would have necessitated that a new needle be place somewhere else. She didn’t tell me these things; I’m a doctor, after all, and I know what she was checking for. But what was impressive was … her lack of hesitation.

That week, medically, had been the week from Hell for me. I’d been in and out of the ER 3 times and was inpatient once for 2 days. Yet, this woman was the ONLY PERSON – doctors included – who never hesitated to touch me. She made me feel less like a ‘sick person’ than like a person. Other nurses were younger – maybe 40+ years younger. Some, were superficially quite nice and several, including both male and female doctors, were well-groomed and attractive. But only this woman is the one I trusted in an instant. This woman is the one I would trust, again, should I ever need health assistance of any kind.

Dr. Abraham Verghese, in his well-received TED.com lecture on the ‘power of touch’ explained that it is the power of touch which connects us and keeps the trust between medical personnel and patients alive. When we substitute technology for touch – especially where it isn’t necessary to do so – we are short-changing not only our patients, but ourselves.

This message is critical to all physicians, nurses, medical staff. It is even more critical to Osteopathic Physicians, though.

At one time, the American Osteopathic Association actually incorporated the vital importance of “touch” into its motto: “The Power of Science.  The Art of Medicine.  The Power of Touch.” but decided to dump it – to blend in, I think, with more allopathic (M.D.) sentiments. Now, the motto is “Treating Our Family and Yours,” or “Doctors the DO,” or some such silly thing.  I’m sorry, but to me, these are silly marketing attempts.  They are meaningless. At a time when the human element, including the Power of diagnosis and trust engendered by the well-intended and educated hand of the physician should be more important than ever, American Osteopaths seem to be retreating into the same technological abyss that swallows our allopathic brethren.

The power to touch IS the power to both give and receive TRUST. Trust is what is most lacking in our healthcare system, today, I think. Consider this: we have more available technology, more information at our fingertips, as do our patients via the internet, more ability to test, poke, prod, and reveal the chemistries, DNA, and inner workings of every aspect of the body, yet trust of physicians and the medical establishment by the common man has never been lower.

Physical diagnosis is becoming a lost art. I had to actually remind the physician’s assistant I saw to look in my throat when I presented with tonsillitis. Wouldn’t you think that would be what she did automatically?

Osteopathic doctors, our profession, has a long history of touching – for diagnostic purposes, for treatment, for reassurance, and for connection. I always connect with my patients this way. Let’s reinstate and reinforce the necessity of this vital component of healthcare before we become no more than our machines allow us to be.


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